Despite the odds, the Patriots have opened the season with two wins, despite many of their offensive weapons sidelined to injury and suspension. And now backing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been added to the injury list. Yet, the Patriots pulled off two wins due to smart coaching and execution. Brandon Thorn puts the New England Patriots offensive and offensive line under the microscope to see how they’ve done it.
LeCharles Bentley made a statement at the inaugural Offensive Line Performance clinic this summer that stuck with me. In reference to OL play, he instructed the people in attendance to, “Appreciate the craftsmanship” of the position. It resonated with me because it is what I attempt do each time I study tape, and it’s something that frankly isn’t done enough. Too often we look for the “what” rather than taking a step back to appreciate the “why” and “how.”
There is a tremendous amount of nuance that goes into every play for every position that is all too often overlooked. This includes the context surrounding each play, and the more of it that we can gather as evaluators the more accurate our assessments become.
As we move into the 2016 NFL regular season I will be expanding the Under the Microscope series from individual players to an evaluation of position groups and scheme. There will still be plenty of individual analysis done, but it will more often fall under the umbrella of specific position groups. Next up is the New England Patriots offensive scheme and OL performance from Week 2.
QB Jimmy Garoppolo was selected in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft and until Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of 2016 had zero regular season starts and saw most of his action in the preseason.
Through his first two starts in Weeks 1 and 2 this season, Garoppolo’s stat line and performance has been impressive. He has gone 42 of 59 for 496 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions for a 119.0 QB rating. The offense ranks fifth in total offense (414.0 YPG), first in third-down efficiency, converting 17/30 third downs (57%), and third in time of possession per game (35:23).
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia have joined forces to create this ball-control, efficient offense by predicating things off of the running game. Through two games New England is tied for first in the NFL in rush attempts per game (34.5), and second in rushing first downs (18).
Studying the tape reveals an offense that is using simple, yet creative schemes, at opportune times throughout games to put players in positions to minimize thinking and maximize performance. Each offensive player routinely executes their assignment proficiently and with great effort as well, and this mixture has been a recipe for consistent ball movement.
Context: Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins. First drive of the game, the offense faces a 1st and 10 on the opponent’s 40-yard line with 12:15 on the clock. The offense is in 12 personnel with both tight ends lined up to the left, TE Clay Harbor on the LOS, and TE Martellus Bennett in a wing alignment. There are two receivers to the right tasked with blocking. This is a single read for the quarterback.
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This is a great example of all 11 guys on the field doing their job with great effort. The offensive line, running back, and quarterback all sell the zone run to the offense’s left, and the receivers both execute blocks to help spring a TE. The result is a 26-yard gain to Bennett and an easy dump-off for Garoppolo that puts the offense in the red zone.
Context: Still the first drive of the game, two plays after the previous big gain by Bennett. The offense has the ball on the opponent’s 12-yard line facing a 2nd down and 8 with 11:02 on the clock.
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The Patriots offensive line works together very well and they possess good chemistry. This is always impressive to see with the volatility that persists with offensive line units across the league, but when you consider that the Patriots rotate two starters (LT Nate Solder and RG Shaq Mason) throughout the game it’s quite remarkable. Credit Scarnecchia for getting this unit on the same page in his first year back on the job.
The offense is in an empty set with 11 personnel on the field, so the protection scheme up front without help from a tight end or running back is crucial for the play’s success. The offensive line runs a half-man slide protection scheme to the right, with Solder blocking big on big, so he is responsible for the wide 9 technique, and the LG/C/RG/RT are sliding to the right responsible for their adjacent gaps. The key block here is from rookie LG Joe Thuney, who covers the A gap and a bull rush from a defensive lineman. He does an outstanding job utilizing an explosive drive-catch phase out of his stance setting the tone for the rest of the play. Initial positioning in tight quarters is critical, and Thuney’s strong base and hand placement puts him in control from the onset. He does a nice job repositioning his hands throughout the rep, and holds the point of attack with excellent leverage and fight. This block forms the crux of the pocket allowing Garoppolo time to find the open target for the touchdown.
Context: 1st quarter, second drive of the game. New England is up 7-0 with the ball on its own 25-yard line. It’s 1st and 10 with 9:32 on the clock. The offense runs a similar look as the previous highlighted play, albeit from a different formation.
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New England sticks with what works to open up its second drive of the game by using play-action off of a split-zone look with 12 personnel, only this time flexing a TE (Harbor) to the offensive right as opposed to previously when they aligned both tight ends to the left. They use the flexed TE to pin the DE inside before releasing, and the wing TE ( Bennett) is used again as the split man crossing behind the formation.
Additionally, the Patriots spread the receivers to opposite sides of the field with tight splits. They clear out the right side of the field with Edelman, and cross WR Chris Hogan over from left to right. These subtle wrinkles give the defense an entirely new look on the same basic play that gained the offense 26 yards on the prior drive. This time the gain is for 19, and another fairly simple concept for Garoppolo to execute. Gaining confidence in a young, inexperienced QB is paramount for any offense, and McDaniels is using deceptive tactics on basic concepts to give his quarterback exactly that.
Context: 1st quarter with the offense facing a 3rd and 9 on the opponent’s 20-yard line. It’s the seventh play of the drive.
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The Patriots offense is in 11 personnel in a 2X2 set. The defense is in its nickel front, with a two high safety look pre-snap that merges into Cover 1 robber. Garoppolo does an outstanding job of looking the safety off to the left before working to the backside TE seam route. He hits Bennett for a 20-yard touchdown to put the Patriots up 14-0.
Again we see outstanding effort from multiple players, namely the two offensive guards: LG Thuney and RG Mason. Mason generates a solid strike that causes a collision on the T-E stunt, and C David Andrews works over to seal the right side. This creates a beautiful pocket for the quarterback.
The key block again goes to Thuney, who demonstrates excellent independent hand usage stemming from a strong inside strike that covers up the inside. From there he uses the opposite hand to regain control all while maintaining outstanding leverage from the ground up. Thuney uses tact and force when needed, showing an advanced understanding of technique in pass protection.
Context: It’s the first drive of the 3rd quarter for the Patriots, and they are facing a 1st and 10 from their own 32-yard line. Garoppolo went down late in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, so third-string rookie QB Jacoby Brissett is in the game. McDaniels continues to display clever, timely play calling to help his young QB gain confidence.
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The Patriots run misdirection via a tight end throwback off of play-action. They move the pocket for Brissett, providing him added protection with the center peel back technique (a technique Scarnecchia used several times throughout the game off of play-action), and gained 37 yards in the process. Granted the Dolphins linebacking corps all fell for the fake, but kudos to the coaching staff for knowing where the weakness of the defense lies, and mercilessly taking advantage of it.
Context: 14:45 left in the fourth quarter, the offense has the ball facing a 1st and 10 from its own 19-yard line. New England is up 31-17. This was the popular 26-yard run and hurdle from RB LeGarrette Blount that was trending on Twitter shortly after it occurred. What was overlooked was what allowed him to reach the sideline in the first place: crafty, decisive blocking.
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Bennett is a legitimate weapon not only in the passing game, but also the running game. Here the offense motions him across the formation to the left side in a wing alignment. He pins defensive end Jason Jones with a vicious strike so Solder can get a free release on his pull to lead the way for Blount. The mental processing and awareness by Solder is subtle, but it is what springs the runner. While Blount receives the acclaim for this play, Solder was the main reason it happened.
Context: Fourth quarter with the score 31-24 New England. The Patriots face a 2nd and 10 on their own 38-yard line with 4:45 left on the clock. Miami has scored 14 unanswered points, so there is pressure on New England to keep the clock running by gaining yardage on the ground.
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Solder again displays very good movement ability to explode out of his stance and get on his horse as the lead puller. He shows patience in space, and the ability to redirect smoothly, leading the way for Blount toward the sideline. Again, the TE pins the DE, although this time the TE is flexed instead of in a wing alignment in order for him to adequately pin the wide 9 technique. This block allows for Solder to get free, and the added wrinkle to the same blocking scheme from earlier speaks to the ability of Scarnecchia and McDaniels to mix things up just enough to keep defenses off-balance.
New England has just two games to go before Brady returns (perhaps fewer until TE Rob Gronkowski returns), and the Patriots offense is among the league’s top performers through two weeks. Despite their success, the next two opponents on the schedule are teams known for their defense (Houston and Buffalo), and they will likely pin their ears back early and often looking to rattle whichever young QB is on the field. With Scarnecchia’s fingerprints on the running game and McDaniels calling plays, the players will be put into positions to think less and just play football. Each of their next two games will be in Foxborough, which will go a long way in aiding the offensive line and quarterback to hear and communicate with each other. This should also help facilitate additional wrinkles to the offense being added without worry of it backfiring.
As the season moves along, expect to see many different presentations of the same concepts. As further weaponry is added to the offense by way of returning injured/suspended players (QB Brady, RB Dion Lewis, TE Gronkowski, OG Jonathan Cooper), and complexity isn’t as much of a concern, defenses should fear what the Patriots will be capable of at full strength.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout. Read more of his work here, including his look at the wonder that is Joe Thomas, an explanation of why Doug Free is underrated, and his piece on Kansas City Chief center Mitch Morse.
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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.